What I learned when I didn't avert my gaze

  • Article by: DAVE ASH
  • Updated: August 14, 2014 - 10:14 AM

Those folks holding the cardboard signs have real quandaries, and we’re all a little at fault.

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As Wednesdays go, it was a pretty average hump day. While driving the sport-utility vehicle home from a gratifying day of answering and writing e-mails, I was called and alerted by one of my four kids that “everyone wants steak.”

So a quick detour was made to the Cub Foods by my house for some top-shelf tenderloin, which seemed like a just reward given my work at the office, as well as for the kids, who had spent the day playing “Minecraft” and napping.

Driving away from the supermarket with tenderloin in tow, I resumed an earlier rumination on some office politics until I noticed, at end of the parking lot, a thirty-something Latina, surrounded by young kids, holding a cardboard sign with the message: “No Job. No Home. No Money. Hungry Children.”

Of course, such sightings are quite common these days at busy intersections. I’ve typically handled them with grace by either (1) clandestinely rolling up the window and avoiding eye contact or (2) handing over a dollar and avoiding eye contact, thus assuaging my conscience so I can go back to thinking about whether the boss was joking in that e-mail or really meant it.

However, perhaps because I had rarely seen such a solicitation in our “nice” neighborhood, something compelled me to stop and talk to the woman.

The first thing I noticed as we stood face-to-face was that she wasn’t Latina, but Caucasian — her darkened skin the result of unprotected sunshine and weeks of dirt and grime. Her story was both typical and horrifying. Her husband left her; she lost her low-paying job; her house was foreclosed; she had no place to go, and her four children were very hungry.

Unskilled in this type of conversation, I scrambled for words to try to comfort her as she looked me in the eye and cried heavy tears while filling in the details. It was in this moment that I felt the need to squelch, of all things, a wry smile. It wasn’t callous disregard for her situation, but rather bemusement at how utterly silly were my earlier thoughts and concerns — my usual concerns — just before this moment.

But I had no idea what to do other than try to give her more than an up-close version of my typical distance-yourself-and-keep-moving response. It was a response I had learned well, not only from passages through various intersections throughout our cities, but also from my twice-daily drive past the homeless people surrounding the Dorothy Day Center, which provides free meals and boarding and was the only service I could think of to refer her to. So, I gave her a half-hug, the address to Dorothy Day and enough cash for cab fare, and I was on my way home to my steak dinner.

Only when I got home I couldn’t eat. Rather than feeling the rush of self-satisfaction I was expecting after doing more than the usual in such a situation, I was instead haunted by the experience. In retrospect, I realize this is the real reason most of us fear such face-to-face meetings — not that we will be assaulted or insulted, but rather that we will have to directly confront pain and suffering that we are implicitly allowing by not doing more to prevent it.

And so I was vexed by more questions. Why didn’t I drive them to the center myself? Why didn’t I give her more money? How should I have helped them? Why did I leave so soon? And, most prominently, unceasingly: What will happen to them now?

I drove back to the Cub Foods parking lot later that night, but by then they were gone.

The image of the woman and her children persists. And one primary question has remained. What can we actually do to help those who have the least among us — the many millions who have been left behind in a ridiculously unequal economic system with an increasingly frayed safety net?

The ready answer is to push for changes in our economic model that will reverse the relentless upward bias and allow a modicum of security to reach the lowest classes. However, that would require asking a majority of our representatives in Congress and the corporations they work for to act in the spirit of the greater good rather than in self-interest, which seems to work as well as my asking my kids to forgo fudge sundaes for Brussels sprouts. Let me know how that goes.

So it’s up to us, all of us, to step into the breach — to at least partly close the yawning gap in prosperity our regressive economic system mandates as a standard course of operation. Not because helping the poorest of the poor is a “nice” thing that we should do from time to time, as I have believed much of my life, but rather because doing so is a fundamental obligation carried by those of us lucky enough to have more than we need.

Internalizing this change in perspective has made it harder not only to speed past roadside solicitors, but also to ignore all of the many more formal opportunities available to all of us to further fill in the gap. Local opportunities range from providing for the most immediate needs through organizations such as Second Harvest Heartland (2harvest.org), to investing in longer term, self-sustaining initiatives such as housing subsidies and job training programs, through the newly created Give Real Change (giverealchange.org) program from the Minneapolis Downtown Council.

All these opportunities have been proven to help the needy more than watching politicians and economists wring their hands on Fox News or MSNBC. So have the hundreds of other local opportunities available on the pick-your-passion charity search site volunteermatch.org.

But, of course, it doesn’t take a Web search to find a chance to fill in the gap. Most days it stares us in the face from behind a cardboard sign. I would encourage you to leave the car window open and not speed by. Or, better yet, stop and engage on a more personal level, beyond handing over a buck or two. You may just change a life, most likely your own.

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